And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds, livestock and creeping things and beats of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
Part One: the Buck Stops – Here. (With a nod to the opening scene of The Last of the Mohicans, 1992)
Anticipated by a full orchestra fanfare, the scene opens on a breathtaking view of mountain ridges, receding in folds of blue. Our view gradually closes in on a thick hillside forest, intensely green and dappled with sunlight. The music narrows and intensifies; a thrumming of low strings hints at little lives spinning out beneath our notice. Spiders swing out on barely visible threads; flies perch and swipe their robotic heads with robotic forelimbs; ladybugs crawl on their pencil-stroke legs; worms chomp mindlessly through loamy soil.
The music picks up speed. A lolloping squirrel pauses, sits upright, beady eyes glistening, ears pricked. A few yards away, a nose-twitching rabbit does the same. Something rides the wind—speed, threat, fear, haste, heart, pant, pain–
Rabbit and squirrel take to all fours and dart away as it crashes on them, with heaving dun-colored sides and sharp, precise hooves. Even in his present extremity, he is magnificent: a full-grown buck crowned with antlers that rattle overhead branches as he leaps over a log across his path. One eye flashes, wide with terror. The forest swallows him up again, and after the excited whisper of leaves has faded there is no sign he was even there. Except for a thin red line, spooling out like a thread. And if we listen closely, a pounding of footsteps, a steady two-beat rhythm unlike the syncopated clatter of four hooves on the packed ground. Listen: it’s coming closer, closer, closer . . .
Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .
A two-footed creature, light and swift, leaps into view. We in the audience feel a little jolt, like Robinson Crusoe stranded on his island, coming upon a human footprint. The man belongs in this woodland scene, but he is not wholly of it. He is as graceful in his way as the buck, but something sets him apart: purpose.
He is not motivated by instinct, much less by blind, unrefined terror. He is not running for his life, or even (not entirely) for his needs. The buck (once captured) will supply food, clothing, and shelter, but also challenge, drama, joy, and poetic imagery.
His body is covered with a long shirt and leather leggings that provide some protection from stabs and thorns, but the feathers braided into his hair serve no useful purpose, nor the beads jumping against his chest. In one hand he clutches a rifle. The rifle is a manufactured item, with an iron-forged barrel and an oak-carved stock, loaded with a lead ball he made himself. There was another ball, now spent in the hedge after grazing the buck’s. On long strides, the man bounds across our field of vision. Still trembling with that first start of recognition at the sight of his face, we follow.
Another figure in homespun and buckskin flickers through the brush on the overlooking ridge. From below, a third is working his way up. They are converging on their prey, closing in on the last stand.
It’s not far. The buck stops in a grassy clearing, as though he instinctively knows his time is up. His grating breath echoes harshly in the glade.
A second lead ball burrows into his neck and he obediently drops.
The man and his companions approach confidently but respectfully. They greet the dead animal as their brother and thank him for providing for their needs. With swift, practiced movements, they gut the buck and truss his lifeless body on a pole. They are exercising dominion, as all human societies have done for all time. The killing is about survival, but the blessing is about ceremony and commemoration, and an unspoken need to shape experience.
Of course it’s a shame that the beautiful buck had to die in the first place. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Part Two: Something to Think about—and Someone to Think
By the end of Genesis 1 the earth is bubbling with plant life and creature life—so why do we encounter this puzzling passage in Genesis 2?
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and watering the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (vss. 5-7)
Higher critics call Genesis 2 an “alternate” account from a different Jewish tradition, and I’m not here to argue. It’s the same story, but we seem to be coming at it from a different angle: chapter 1 is the summary view, an answer to the philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And the scientific question, “Where did it all come from?” Chapter 2 may be intended as an answer to the ontological question, “What does it mean for anything to ‘be’?” From the image of a world already wildly proliferating, the scene is suddenly, oddly barren. No bush, no small plants, only a desert-y stretch of ground. “In the land,” some commentators say, probably refers not to the whole earth, but to the selected piece of earth where God plans his final act of creation. With startling particularity, we’re told where it is, or at least what is nearby: the River Euphrates, which can still be located on a map under the same name.
Imagine God scraping aside the vegetation, brushing away the debris, rubbing his hands together, flexing his metaphorical fingers, bending down. All other animals he “created” (Gen. 1:21, 25, 27). Man, he “forms.” It’s a particular act from a particular medium, the “dust of the ground.”
Why not mud, or clay? Every child knows that dust doesn’t stick.
The Hebrew word (apar) is not one of those flexible terms interchangeable with “mud” or “clay.” Apar is
a powdery substance that can be flung in the air to express disapproval (Luke 23:21) or paired with ashes to accompany deep sorrow or repentance (Job 42:6). It doesn’t stick together. Nevertheless God “forms” something of it, the first time that particular verb is used in the creation account. It implies a personal connection, a hands-on, deliberative, intentional, well-thought-out and considered act. Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .
Watch this: the outward image takes shape—a head and a trunk, two arms and two legs, similar in many ways to the other mammals now roaming the earth, and yet strikingly different. No one, least of all the beasts themselves, would mistake him for a beast. The Divine Holiness has planned this form down to the last brain cell.
Perhaps he contemplates it for a moment, this ultimate creation, the habitation of his image visible for the first time in a body. This is revolutionary: spirit and flesh are about to be fused in awareness, and that which eats and digests and defecates and mates and sires and bears will plant one foot in the infinite. God himself, by his predetermined will and focused energy and infinite power, holds the particles of this quintessence of dust* together. He bends down and breathes into it,
and man became a living soul.**
The soul with the breath of God in it can never die. And the Immortal Breath has committed himself to human history with a kiss.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there he put the man he had formed. (Gen. 2:8)
“Adam, arise. Come with me.”
The man pulls himself to his feet in a graceful, coordinated motion of golden limbs. He understands at once, he loves immediately. He walks across the bare land in a melting sunrise; for the first time ever, the image of God casts a long shadow. The sweetness of water meets his nostrils and the chirp of birdsong reaches his ears long before the green of the garden brims on the horizon. As he approaches, leaves rattle like tambourines, butterflies startle their wings and prowling cats prick their ears and tilt their exotic faces. The garden buzzes with a rumor of the king’s approach. When he enters, the entire animal assembly is waiting for him, called together by the same voice that brought them into being.
Now, says the Lord: What are you going to call them?
- If it’s warm enough, find a patch of ground outside and lay on it. Try to overcome your scruples and forgo the blanket; nothing between you and the bare ground. Spread your fingers and flatten as much of your body as possible. Imagine the great round ball of the earth in all its physicality, and try to feel yourself as one with it skin, bones, vital organs, every part of you. Recall that one day (if the Lord tarries) your body will be one with it, and take a few deep breaths. Do you feel infinite? Why?
- Spend some time contemplating the family pet, or the birds gathered around your feeder. Look into their eyes, if you can. How do you feel kinship? How do you feel alienation?
- Write a list of the frustrations you have with your body. Then make a list of the things your body can do. Which list is longer?
- Go people-watching in a local park or mall. Imagine them all—young and old, fat or thin, lively or weary—as immortal souls that will never die. How does this change your view of them?
*Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, “What a piece of work is man” speech. In medieval thought, “dust” was the fifth element, after earth, water, air, and fire: the mysterious, invisible substance out of which God created life.
** KJV. Most modern translations render this phrase as “and man became a living creature,” or “living being.” I’m sure that’s closer to the Hebrew meaning, but from the context it’s clear that this living creature is distinct from all the others, so I prefer the older translation here.
Next up: God “rests.” Did anything happen on Day Seven? More than you know . . .